By Jude Kirton-Darling MEP and Paul Brannen MEP
As the dust settles following the shock of Friday’s results, the time has come for Labour to embark on a process of deep soul searching over what went so wrong. There are lots of questions that will preoccupy our politicians and party members for many weeks and months to come. However, if we wait for the soul searching to finish before we campaign to keep the UK in the EU, by then the argument will already be lost.
We simply do not have the time to lose. An all-Tory Cabinet meets today for the first time in 18 years, and if the first four days following a Conservative victory are anything to go by David Cameron will not waste any time in pushing through an aggressive agenda now that his leadership is unshackled by coalition. Labour must be ready to hold the Government to account.
We need in particular to maintain a strong message on the European Union (EU): on what membership means for Britain, on how it benefits us and on the effects of a potential exit for our economy and citizens. With news today that the Tories will push for a referendum as early as 2016, and following initial talks this weekend with several European leaders to kick-start the process of renegotiation, it is now clear that David Cameron and his team will be working to a tight schedule. Importantly, this means that Labour has very little time to convince the public of the case for staying in.
The picture before us need not be one of doom and gloom. Like his predecessor John Major, the first part of David Cameron’s second term as premier will be plagued by a period of intense internal conflict as he grapples to contain the impossible demands set out by the swollen ranks of his Tory Eurosceptics. As the Conservative Party tears itself apart on this issue, Labour must be ready to respond with a clear, positive and united message on Europe, equipped with the right information and supported by our pro-European partners. Rather than sitting it out in the dressing room and arguing over tactics, we need to be leading on the pitch, buoyed by a firm belief that we can win.
We must be alert to what is being asked for during negotiations – how they are being conducted. Importantly, we must pre-empt the inevitable attack on the European Union and not allow the Government once again to set the terms of the debate. This is an agenda that will be won on narrative, and there is already a glut of misinformation on the EU out there that threatens our chances of a positive outcome.
Labour Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have for a long time worked hard to bust the myths circulated with alarming consistency by Parliamentarians and media outlets hostile to the European project. We’ve been active on social media and in the press, highlighting our efforts and achievements in Brussels to ensure that the EU works in the British interest.
Far from being faceless bureaucrats, we are proud to have led campaigns to improve the rights, health and safety of UK citizens, to protect our public services and the NHS in international trade deals, and to secure key funding for development projects for our most vulnerable regions.
Now that we have a Conservative majority Government, our role as champions of the EU has gained an even greater importance. It is for this reason that we, Labour MEPs for the North East of England, have this week released information on the top five ways the EU benefits us, both in our region and beyond. Withdrawal from Europe will be particularly dire for North East, a region hit hard by austerity and that suffers from the highest levels of youth unemployment in the country. With deeper and more swingeing cuts in the pipeline under a new majority Conservative government, our reliance on millions of pounds worth of funding from the EU for key regional development projects has never been greater.
Our five key messages show why, when it comes to Europe, it is better to be in than out. These messages extol the material and social value of our membership of the EU, on which depend our prosperity, security and millions of UK jobs. We want to show how trading in the single market drives competitiveness and innovation in UK businesses and encourages investment and capital into Britain, so boosting living standards. We want to make clear that the EU protects our fundamental freedoms and promotes cooperation as a means to improve the lives, heath and surroundings of its citizens.
Labour went into the General Election with a pro-European message. Our manifesto said we would restore Britain’s role as a key player on the world stage, that we would work closely with other Member States to ensure that the EU is the best it can be, with British interests truly at its heart. Our defeat last week has not changed this message: it’s now time to shout it from the rooftops.
Jude Kirton-Darling and Paul Brannen are Labour MEPs for the North East of England